How can I keep disruptive emotions in check?

by Sam on September 7, 2010

Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.  ~Laurence Peter.


One-Minute Answer:  Sharp emotional intelligence is the foundation of great leadership.


The opening workshop in my Leadership Academy is “The Emotional Wiring of Great Leaders”. It centers on diagnosis and fitness in twenty-seven dimensions of emotional competence. And of these, the one resonating the loudest with the greatest numbers of students is the fourth one on the list: I keep disruptive emotions and impulses in check.


The amygdala is an almond shaped part of the brain that plays a key role in our emotional behavior, particularly when we feel under attack. In time of perceived danger the amygdala floods our neocortex with cortisol. This sharpens our reflexes to insure self-preservation when we come up against a black bear in the woods. It also elevates our heart rate and the quickness of our breathing. And it does one more thing! The flexibility of our thinking drops rapidly from its normal state of 4!=24 to 3!=6 to 2!=2 down to 1!=1.


The one-factorial condition may be good for limiting self-debate when we encounter a monster in the woods, but it doesn’t help when we run into a fiend at work. An amygdala fully triggered by performance anxiety, sudden demand, disappointment, or personal attack has been hijacked. That’s because the inflexibility of our thinking does not support sensible choices—almost certainly not choices that we feel good about later when the cortisol drains and we rise back up to a brain flexibility level of 4!.


Workshop students have two questions when they learn what you now know: (1) How do I prevent a hijacking? and (2) What should I do if I fail to prevent it?



Five-Minute Answer:  Let’s focus on those situations where you need to protect yourself from the outrageous, unjustified, or punishing behavior of a boss, peer, report, customer, vendor, or family “black bear”.


Protect Your Amygdala


It should help for you to recognize the three most likely causes of personal attack. They testify to the wisdom that people don’t treat you way they do because of who you are but rather because of who they are.


1.    At least 20% of the population is depressed, emotionally disturbed, or mentally ill. The trigger for their behavior is likely a chemical imbalance in the brain over which you and they have no control. They are troubled.

2.    Perhaps another 20% of the population has a history of upbringing and life experiences that have molded them into a tinderbox of emotion. Again, without professional help they are too troubled to do any better.

3.    That would leave 60% of your would-be assailants unspoken for, except by author and speaker Zig Ziglar. He said, “Those people who are mean, rude, ugly, and nasty to you are not that way because the want to hurt you, but rather because they are hurting.” He’s right! Personal attacks not explained by chemical imbalance or upbringing are triggered by the pain or fear of the attacker. Don’t believe it? Then, ask yourself why you’ve ever lashed out at another person. You were hurting!


Another everyday cause of anger is when others fail to meet your expectations. It’s common to conclude that the culprits are thoughtless, stupid, or devious.


Have there not been many times when you failed to meet the requirements of others? How often was thoughtlessness, stupidity, or deviousness your reason for not delivering? Isn’t it more likely that you didn’t really understand the other person’s expectations as well as he or she thought you did? Or that you had full intent to come through, but got sidetracked by something that you couldn’t quite get the disappointed person to appreciate and understand?


You should now have a thick armor of protection over your amygdala. After all, how can you feel entitled to better behavior from people who may struggle to be better, but can’t pull it off? Hopefully, this new understanding of them will move you even beyond self-defense to a place of empathy for them. Now that would be different.


There are two compelling reasons to stay calm when others disappoint you. First, the absence of rancor prevents intractable conflict, irreconcilable differences, and alienation. Second, your composure enables you to more powerfully and more creatively call for better behavior in the future.


Rescue a Hijacked Amygdala


Will the advice above always work? No! Not unless you trade places with the Tin Man before he found his heart. Chances are good that an emotional mugger is about to trigger, or re-trigger, your cortisol. What do you do?


1.    Anticipate that it’s going to happen!  When your knowledge of, or past history with, others tells you to expect less than sensitive treatment from them, you’re prepared for the onslaught or the disappointment. Even though your first thought may be, “He better not do it this time!” the knowledge you gained above should help you take a totally different approach.

2.    Breathe deeply.  Hijackings shorten your breath. Several repetitions of in-through-the-nose and out-through-the-mouth reverse that and begin the draining of cortisol.

3.    Go to your “happy place” of appreciation.  In the movie “Happy Gilmore” wannabe golfer Adam Sandler is advised to control his anger over missed putts by going to his “Happy place” to calm him down. If you saw the movie, you know that the place Happy fantasized was R-rated. The advice here is very different. Think of something in your life that you truly appreciate. Perhaps it’s a gift for which you regularly thank God. When your amygdala is triggered, go there for instant relief.

4.    Talk about your feelings.  The surest way to defuse someone else’s anger is to let them talk about it. This works equally well for you. The more you talk about your anger, the faster it dissipates. Besides, focusing on your anger makes you the target rather than the person whom you allowed to trigger it.

5.    Exit stage right.  A manager was put in a tough spot by a challenging question during her presentation. She answered the question. On the drive home that evening she mentally kicked herself for responding the way she did during the presentation. Now coolly residing at 4!, she had a much better answer in mind than the one she gave in the midst of her hijacking. Whenever possible, buy time to calm down.


Breakthrough!  In what situation/relationship at work or at home are you most vulnerable to disruptive emotions? What step(s) will you take to prevent them? What recovery strategy will you apply the next time you need it? Share your answers to these questions with your coach, your accountability partner, or with the person who most often experiences your emotional impulses.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Brown 09.08.10 at 7:52 am

Great Article Sam and perfect timing!!!



Alex Stiber 09.08.10 at 10:15 am

Great stuff, Sam!

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